The Cloud Can Drive Innovation. Will U.S. Manufacturing Let It?

Ryan Kelly / March 24, 2017

It’s hard to remember life and work before the cloud. What was going to solve all our problems before big data? What acronym’s potential dizzied us before IIoT? What did we do with our hands before we had smartphones, and did we really navigate via physical maps just 10 years ago?

Quantifying and qualifying the effects of the cloud on the developed world’s experience of itself is almost impossible, but it’s fair to say it’s made everything different — almost. While manufacturers as individual consumers have made the shift to a cloud-dominated reality in their day-to-day lives, few have made the shift in their day-to-day work.

From sourcing quotes for CNC machining to managing supply chains, manufacturing takes place in what mostly passes as a pre-cloud world. Yes, we have robots. Yes, we have G-code. Yes, we have Solidworks and Autodesk and EDI. While the impact of these and other technological advancements on our industry can’t be overstated, their impact has been sorely siloed and discrete. The cloud makes it possible for these and emerging technologies to converge, communicate and cooperate, resulting in exponential increases in productivity and innovation, as well as creative approaches to risk mitigation. As the global marketplace slices and dices Time alongside ever-rising customer expectations, underutilizing the cloud is a squandering of opportunity manufacturing organizations can ill afford.

So don’t do it. The cloud can drive the innovation your organization needs to stay ahead of the competition, but first, how we go about our business has to change.

Here’s a look at how the cloud can make innovation almost as sure as death and taxes, as well as a brief discussion on what manufacturers in the U.S. need to do to enable and embolden cloud power’s whole-hearted adoption.

What’s In Our Way

Anytime you find yourself tempted to say, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it,” allow yourself a generous pause. Yes, U.S. manufacturing has chalked up a myriad of wins over the past 10 decades. Yes, our innovations — in processes, processing, products, power — are all used and emulated around the world. Yes, the manufacturing sector still gives the best bang for its buck when compared to almost any other industry in the country. These are realities that should make all of us working in and for American manufacturing — whether we’re running a CNC milling machine or designing 3D printers — very, very proud.

However, being a winner for a period of time isn’t something that, once accomplished, necessarily sticks around. Just ask Duke or Villanova. Great innovation has never been the lone domain of U.S. companies, entrepreneurs and inventors. As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous and as technology gets less and less expensive, the odds that the next Elon Musk is a teenage girl in Mumbai becomes increasingly possible. There have always been dozens of Elon Musks about. They just lacked access to the opportunities he had.

Not to take anything away from the teenager in Mumbai, but don’t you wanna keep winning?

Then it’s time to forego what we’ve always done. Relying on paper trails, working inside siloed systems of communication and design, choosing the glacial-paced RFQ just to source basic CNC machined parts and continuing to hope your sluggish supply chain that reaches from here to Huzhou to Hanoi and back again won’t break is no way to drive innovation. Such practices will only ensure we keep looking over our shoulders to the “glory days” of yesteryear. The cloud can remake how we go about making. Let’s use it to do that, shall we?

3 Reasons the Cloud is an Innovation-Focused Company’s Best Friend

1. Collaboration

Most manufacturers agree that collaboration is a primary key to effective innovation. Even with a Steve Jobs at the helm, a company needs a team of engineers and designers for whom working together to realize ambitious goals is second nature. Traditionally for teams to work well together, they needed plenty of space, time and money. Everyone on the team had to be physically present to one another, too.

The cloud changed that. Because physical limits of time and space no longer apply, teams can now spread across time zones and countries, while still working together in real-time on the same files, documents and designs. Talented individuals, who can’t relocate or don’t desire to, no longer have to forego working for organizations outside their zip code. Finally, HR departments desperate for skilled workers and talented minds aren’t hamstrung by location for recruitment.

Cloud Computing

But the cloud does more for collaboration than break down the barriers of physics. The idea of team itself has expanded inside the cloud. With thousands of companies offering new and useful services for manufacturers to outsource business operations to, many organizations are discovering that some of their most important teammates are people they’ve never met. Because these outsourcing partners have set up shop in the cloud, utilizing them requires no special hardware or software. They’re accessible via any WiFi-enabled device and are able to streamline everything from project management and record-keeping to part design.

The cloud also makes it possible to collaborate with increasingly robust technologies, including artificial intelligence. Not all manufacturers have the resources to build, buy or house the processors required to make use of machine learning and AI, but the cloud pulls it all within reach.

To put it plainly: the cloud has redefined collaboration. For forward-thinking companies that desire to push their innovative capacities to the edge through a combination of talented people, outsourcing partners and mind-blowing software, the cloud becomes the where, the how and the way.

2. Oh, the Data You’ll Grow

The internet and digitization created what we call big data, but the cloud transformed it into something huger than huge. As sensors and the Internet of Things come online in more products and in more places via more people, manufacturers are poised to know more about their customers and products than Einstein knew about the universe.

Data comes in many forms, but for the manufacturer, two types rank highest in terms of their effects on innovation: product data and operational data. On the product data side, it’s now possible to keep doing research long after products make their way into customers’ hands. From discovering when products are most commonly used to what causes them to malfunction or underperform, manufacturers can improve future versions, deploy software updates and fixes to products already in the market and pave data-charged paths to innovation that customers want.

Basically, the smart products entering the marketplace are themselves capable of being partners in innovation. Rather than just relying on people to come up with new ideas, products will spur and generate ideas, too, subverting product launch timelines, reducing failures and routing paths to creativity no one has ever traveled before.

Operational data aids innovation in a less direct way. As data is generated, gathered and analyzed from machines and shop floors, meaningful efficiency and productivity insights will become the norm. Knowing a machine is getting low on coolant or a tool is failing before problems arise saves valuable time and money. Knowing which machinist works best on which machine with which types of materials will, too.

Innovation, because it can’t follow a preconceived formula, could always have more time and money directed at it. Any type of streamlining that results in a freeing up of either is a win for companies that long to have more to invest in innovation and R&D.

3. Disruption

Many manufacturers inwardly quail at the thought of disruptive technologies. From the hotel industry to the entertainment industry, technological newcomers have toppled giants in less time than it takes to get a patent, and since technological progress doesn’t seem to ever slow down, those manufacturers who want their companies to endure the next decade best take the bull by the horns. It’s likely not a matter of if disruption is coming; it’s a matter of when. So why not beat it to the punch?  

Cloud computing makes for an ideal environment for disruptive technologies to take root and flourish. Nimble, inexpensive, pervasive, simple, the cloud allows creation and optimization of technologies that mirror its attributes. Disruptive tech, if you leverage it before it leverages you, can streamline and speed up a lot of the operations and processes that continue to bog down the industry.

Information Flow

Take the burgeoning online CNC machining services scene. Free of RFQs and the subsequent waiting sourcing quotes necessitates, the best of these services also make use of a supplier network that’s already vetted with capabilities and capacity that are intimately understood. Basically, what manufacturers in need of CNC machined parts get when they choose to be disrupted by an online machining platform, is access to bountiful amounts of reliable supply. Add to that access the fact that the procurement timeline is reduced by weeks or months thanks to data-driven pricing, and all of a sudden, time-to-market shrinks, supply chain risks lessen and procurement pains ease. Pressures on time and other finite resources are also reduced— a recipe ripe for the time and resources needed to invest in innovation to open up and expand.

Don’t just hold onto your phone. Harness the tool that makes it so useful. The cloud is manufacturing’s surest path to innovation, and it’s faster and more powerful than anything that’s ever existed before. It’s high-time we changed things up and made use of it.

Find out how MakeTime can help you leverage the cloud for online CNC machining procurement and improved innovation here.